Amid the blue and green hues of the Barnegat Bay’s Sedge Islands State Wildlife Management Area, wooden platforms rise up through the marshland.
As your boat moves through the area, the senses go into overdrive.
Your eyes immediately turn to the male ospreys with their five foot wing spans as they quickly swoop around above the bay waters until they spot their prey and dive into the water, snatching a fish with their sharp talons.
But it’s the smell and the sound that fully immerse you into the world of the osprey.
The salty and pungent scent of the marshland dominates. And, of course, the calls and cries of birds, especially ospreys, fill the air.
During a recent morning survey of the nests on a small motorboat through Sedge Islands, situated west of the southern portion of Island Beach State Park, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey’s Habitat Program Manager Ben Wurst described the area’s osprey population.
“It’s pretty much the most densely populated colony for ospreys in New Jersey, where we have been 25 and 30 nesting pairs — all within at least a square mile,” he said while slowly navigating the boat through shallow water.
When approaching four osprey nests — all just feet from the bay’s open waters and two discovered to be inactive — Wurst hopped out of the boat and pulled it ashore.
Grabbing his ladder, walking through the marsh, and positioning it on the nests, his “banding mission,” or affixing red and silver bands on nestling legs, began.
Wurst had to work fast, gently fastening the bands on the nestlings while also protecting himself from the circling mother, who would vocalize a signal to the white, brown, and gray chicks with orange eyes to lay down and play dead while simultaneously dive-bombing him with her sharp talons open.
Despite the obvious risks, he says he has only been actually struck once.
Regardless, it’s a mission that Wurst, a protégé of Pete McClain, the man who brought back New Jersey’s osprey population from near extinction in the early 1970s, accepts unequivocally.
Wurst, who has been conducting osprey surveys for years, determined last year that the state’s osprey population hit an all-time high in 2014.
Now, in connection with the New Jersey Osprey Project, the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey is undertaking “Project RedBand,” a citizen-science based project on Barnegat Bay to engage locals and visitors to the Jersey Shore in osprey management and conservation.
Wurst began marking young ospreys at their nest sites with auxiliary color bands on their right leg during this season’s surveys. Over 60 have been affixed on the birds before they were mature enough to fly.
“The use of the auxiliary ‘red bands’ will help us learn a lot about the ecology of ospreys nesting on Barnegat Bay,” he said. “Project RedBand will also help us engage local communities in osprey conservation and management by encouraging citizens to report re-sightings of banded birds.”
[Click here to watch Wurst band osprey chicks]
According to the expert, the red bands will help citizens see the birds as they learn to hunt, soar, and eventually migrate south for the winter. They will eventually reach their destinations in Caribbean, Central America, and Northern South America, where they will remain for the next two years.
“We are hopeful that this project will instill in New Jersey residents a long lasting appreciation for birds of prey and the habitat they require to survive,” he said.
To learn more about Project RedBand and to report sightings, click here. If you’re on a mobile device, scroll down to the bottom to view the gallery.